Monday, August 23, 2010

My thoughts on "Internal Injuries: Moral Division within the Church"

"If you board the wrong train it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Joseph D. Small, Director of the Office of Theology and Worship of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) has written a paper which he read at the 2010 conference of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. It is also a paper that many members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are reading as they look for a path to follow through the maze of troubling issues we are now faced with since General Assembly. The paper is entitled "Internal Injuries: Moral Division within the Churches."(Internal Injuries by Joe Small) While the paper is ecumenically given it is focused on the reformed tradition and points to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Small’s paper begins by pointing out the lack of unity in the Reformed churches but also addresses how those in the church who find themselves in the position of confronting an impaired communion might respond. Small writes, not of a shadow church, but parallel structures in the Church. He uses ideas from the last president of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel and his 1975 essay The Power of the Powerless.” As Small puts it, this deals with the question “How does one live freely within a system that suppresses freedom?” and he uses Havel’s position on how one finds the answer, it “lies in the difference between acceding to life within the lie and determining to live within truth.” (8)

Havel’s answers are wrapped around how those who seek to live truthfully in a repressive government might live; how they should act and respond, not to a lie, but to the truth. And even the consequences of such persistence for truth are suggested. Small, however, is quick to clarify that he does not see the various mainline church governments as totalitarian.

Some of Small’s thoughts trouble me, some thoughts I like and I have several disagreements about how the orthodox should proceed. I will explain: I disagree with using a metaphor of a repressive secular state when attempting to understand how believers might behave in the midst of a denomination that has absorbed the decadence of an immoral society. I believe we need to look at how past believers have reacted, not to repressive governments, but to immoral, heretical and manipulative church governments, teachers, pastors and administrators. I will explain further in this analysis.

But first some of my other disagreements: Small, I believe, sets this paper off the wrong direction when he writes, “At the outset, the restored unity of the church was understood to be reformation’s goal.” Small clarifies this some when he writes, “John Calvin’s critique of the late medieval Catholic Church and its practices was pervasive and often harsh, yet its purpose was always reform, not separation.” Of course the goal was not separation.

Neither Luther nor Calvin would have split the church on purpose. But at the same time I do not believe that one can say their goal was unity. Their goal was reform. A reform that moved straight ahead with the five solas intact. And I believe it is with these that believers must be concerned today, sola scriptoria sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, soli Deo Gloria. If there is to be unity it will be around these five themes of the Reformation. Because Small starts his paper off with the understanding that unity was the goal of the Reformation the whole paper moves toward a goal of unity which overshadows its advice about faithfulness.

That leads me to the next concern I have with Small’s paper. And this is an idea that is troubling most of the mainline churches in the United States, it is the problem named schism. There are hints in Small’s paper that those who have left the PCUSA as well as others who have left other mainline denominations have committed schism. On the other hand, quoting David Yeago about the ELCA, Small does ask, “But what happens when the part that goes its on way without regard for the whole is the part that is in charge?” But the idea of schism, in this paper, is placed in tension between two poles. The people in charge having left, what Small and Yeago refer to as an “impaired communion,” and the individual churches that have actually left to align with less progressive denominations.

Yet one has to ask of the latter, is this really schism? And the idea of “regard for the whole,” has all kinds of implications. It deserves a whole paper or posting. But in Small’s paper the terms are set to lay ground for a way forward that does not involve formal separation. Instead he proposes parallel structures. As Small explains:

“The institutions of prevailing ecclesial systems must be met by parallel structural possibilities. The creation of parallel structures should not be confused with the creation of shadow institutions. In recent years, Presbyterian institutions have not served us well. Creating mirror images of those institutions in the hope that organizational/managerial approaches to Christian faith and life can be done better and more faithfully misses an opportunity to embody a new way of living the gospel. Within the church, genuinely parallel structures might include intentional networks of ministers and congregations, collaborative educational efforts, covenanted spiritual disciplines of Scripture and prayer, alternative ecumenical relations, focused mission initiatives, and more. Parallel structural possibilities might also include judicatory realignments and even the creation of non-geographic presbyteries, synods, and dioceses. But method is not the point. Whatever the shape of parallel structures, they will only be worthwhile if they live differently from current church institutions, avoiding the bourgeois values and bureaucratic procedures that too often characterize church life.”

Related to this understanding of how believers live within truth while existing in a denomination that does not hold any particular truth, Small suggests that the Presbyterian method of using debate and voting as a method of deciding theological issues (truth) is unreasonable. He hints that it is possibly unchristian. And again the idea of unity enters the picture. Using a vote of “52%-48%” on a moral issue, Small suggests that “all too often, when a majority vote determines the matter, the unity of the church is betrayed.” But is unity the issue, or is faithfulness?

So while parallel structures perhaps should and often do exist in many troubled mainline denominations is that the whole answer? In reading through the paper have we really followed the right steps and thought out the process correctly?

I will now come back to my original thought that we must, rather than thinking in terms of how citizens have resisted repressive and immoral governments, look at how believers have reacted to immoral and repressive church governments, teachers, pastors and administrators. The examples are different. One can only rarely flee a repressive government; but one can, without life threatening impunity, leave a denomination. The question has to do with faithfulness. And truthfully unity has little to do with the quandary. Following the will of Jesus Christ has to do with the whole. Some are faithful in their leaving, many are faithful in their staying and with that the picture changes. The process is not unity but faithfulness.

So with many of the suggestions given in Small’s paper about how to live in truth I would agree. For instance, “intentional networks of ministers and congregations, collaborative educational efforts, covenanted spiritual disciplines of Scripture and prayer, alternative ecumenical relations, focused mission initiatives,” are all good and in some places I believe are already in place. But what about “judicatory realignments and even the creation of non-geographic presbyteries, synods, and dioceses?” I have some very different thoughts about these alternative structures. If we have reached the place where this is necessary we have reached a different place altogether.

With them we will have reached a place where we can no longer ordain in the same way but must do it separately. We will have perhaps reached the place where the two different structures will possess two different definitions of marriage. One structure will be the Church of Jesus Christ, not perfect of course, but holding to the apostolic teaching on morality. The other structure will be apostate, allowing fornication as normal, adultery as a sometimes solution, and same gender marriage and LGBT ordination as faithful. But the theological differences will be even greater.

While some in the old structure will hold to the biblical teaching about the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the redemptive work of Jesus, the authority of Scripture, many will not. It is simply too apparent by reading the meanderings of various progressive blogs, one structure will be filled with teachings that deny biblical faith. We will have, perhaps by failure to enter into the process, including voting as well as a fellowship of prayer and proclamation, reached that time when we cannot, to paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ride on the train because it is going the wrong direction. We will need to ride a different train.

But we have not reached that time yet. The train is still waiting in the station and we, as well, as the engineers are not sure of the direction.

Beyond this it should be noted that we have one confession in our Book of Confessions, the Theological Declaration of Barmen, that was written with the understanding that those who wrote it and adhered to it were the true church in Germany. They were seeking faithfulness not unity. That Confession is a sufficient one. It confesses Christ alone.

We are voting on another confession which at the time of its writing its authors and even the World Alliance of Reformed Churches insisted that those who confessed it were the true church in South Africa. While the Belhar Confession is not sufficient in its confession of Jesus Christ perhaps we should understand that those who truly confess Christ are the sufficient structure. Unity has to do with our proclamation, our confession of Christ. Perhaps it is time to confess Jesus Christ as redeemer and transformer, the One who saves from sin. But we are still watching the train and its direction.


John Kerr said...

As Jesus pointed out, a house divided against itself cannot stand. We are divided against ourselves, with two different faiths trying to claim the label "Christian" (and incidentally, the "Presbyterian" label as well). I have had Bonhoeffer's train metaphor popping up quite a bit recently--perhaps we're on that train?

Viola Larson said...


As I pointed out I don't think the train metaphor fits yet. I was mostly trying to say two things. It shouldn't be about unity but about faithfulness. And if we reach the point where we need different theological presbyteries and synods we have reached the point where we are two very different entities. That is not unity.

I know some including the OGA are trying to push us toward Phyllis Tickle’s divisions- I don't agree with the push or the divisions. But then I am not and will never be an emerging 'Christian.'

Pastor Dennis said...

It seems to me that unity was an issue for the reformers in this way; that they only severed communion with "The Church" when that church took steps to prevent their preaching, teaching, and worship according to the Word of God and, conjointly, tried to kill them.
In another issue, we need to work on our theology of what a "denomination" is. I provisionally but firmly believe that denomination is to The Church what a particular marriage is to the spiritual reality of Marriage. All married people participate (well or poorly), spiritually, in the reality of marriage. When they put themselves asunder and remarry they commit "schism" in their first marriage but continue to participate in the spiritual reality of "Marriage", by means of their new "affiliation". I think the marriage you are currently in is the embodiment of "Marriage" with a capital "M".

Viola Larson said...

Hi Pastor Dennis,
I will have to think about your term "Spiritual Reality of Marriage." That is interesting.

This morning when I first woke up I was thinking about the denomination thing, and I thought of Israel with 12 tribes. Probably a bad example but still each tribe is or was a part of Israel.

Anyway I am leaving for the day but wanted to say I just, very fast, explored your blog. It is wonderful. I will come back another time and read more carefully.

Pastor Bob said...

I wrote a paper back in my DMin program talking about problems in the PCUSA and our promise to promote Peace, Unity and Purity. We seem to emphasize peace over unity and purity. When I favored purity over the professor about when crazy. Nevertheless I think it is an important question. Maybe there is a dynamic that requires us to emphasize different items at different times in history.

Mike Porter said...

I enjoyed your analysis. My only comment is that the only unity that counts in heaven is unity under the banner of the Word of God, not under any particular denomination. I have always been appalled by the denominational pride exhibited by the PC(USA) (the "true church"...really?). No church has a corner on the truth; leaving a wayward denomination should never be interpreted as anything other than obedience to the revealed Word of God; it is not a schism. In fact, to remain in a church or denomination that engages in false teaching is contrary to the teaching of the NT.

Viola Larson said...

Hi Mike,
You may not come back and see this. But I just realized that you made a comment that I don't think I saw. When you wrote it I was sitting in the hospital eating dinner with my husband after his bypass surgery and on our anniversary. He is great now.
I mostly agree with you. I still think it is about faithfulness.